BRISBANE, AUSTRALIA - The United States is warning mutineers who have seized control of Niger that U.S. support for the Western African nation will dry up unless President Mohamed Bazoum is released and returned to power.
The threat Saturday by Secretary of State Antony Blinken to pull hundreds of millions of dollars in aid followed Friday’s announcement by General Abdourahamane Tchiani, the head of the presidential guard, that he is Niger’s new leader.
"Let me be very, very clear," Blinken said at a news conference in Brisbane, Australia, following consultations with his Australian counterpart. "That support is in clear jeopardy.”
"Our economic and security partnership with Niger, which is significant, hundreds of millions of dollars, depends on the continuation of the democratic governance and constitutional order that has been disrupted," he said.
Just this past March, during a visit to Niger, Blinken announced the country would get part of a $150 million humanitarian aid package.
Niger has also benefited from hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of U.S. military aid and counterterrorism training and has been hosting about 1,100 U.S. troops.
White House National Security Council coordinator John Kirby said Friday the military takeover in Niger "may cause the United States to cease security and other cooperation with the government of Niger."
Kirby said, though, that while the U.S. is "deeply concerned," it was still holding out hope for a peaceful resolution.
"We believe that there is still a space for diplomacy here, and that that diplomacy is actively being pursued not just by the United States, but by our allies and partners and our African partners as well," he said.
Funding cuts, ultimatums
The European Union and France have both cut off funding to Niger, they said in separate announcements Saturday. The EU had budgeted $554 million for Niger from 2021 to 2024, according to the EU website.
The African Union issued a 15-day ultimatum to the junta in Niger after its African Union Peace and Security Council met Friday. It asked the soldiers to "return immediately and unconditionally to their barracks and restore constitutional authority, within a maximum of fifteen (15) days."
It said failure to release Bazoum would prompt "necessary action, including punitive measures against the perpetrators" by the bloc. It did not say what those specific actions would be.
The mutineers have declared the government dissolved and suspended the country’s constitution. Their leader, Tchiani, said they acted to oust the president because of deteriorating security in the West African country, which is fighting an Islamist militant insurgency. They have also closed the country's borders and airspace and imposed a nationwide curfew.
Leaders of the country’s army declared their support for Wednesday’s overthrow of Bazoum, who was democratically elected two years ago. In a statement on social media, the army said is backing the coup to prevent “a deadly confrontation” that could lead to a “bloodbath” in Niger.
Brigadier General Mohamed Toumba, who is among Tchiani’s soldiers, told state television the junta had met with civil servants on Friday and asked them to continue their work as usual.
"Everything that must be done will be done," he said.
On the streets of the Nigerien capital Saturday, things appeared to be normal as locals wait to see what happens. Many say they still support Bazoum.
"I'm with him, he does a good work. (But) what can we do?" Mohamed Cisse, a street seller, told The Associated Press. "This is (the new leader's) time, Bazoum's time is over," he said.
Where is Bazoum?
Bazoum’s current whereabouts remain unknown.
French President Emmanuel Macron spoke to him Friday, French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna told Agence France-Presse. According to Colonna, Macron said Bazoum is "reachable" and "in good health."
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield also spoke with Bazoum and expressed Washington’s strong condemnation of any effort to seize power by force.
In a message posted Thursday to the social media platform X, formerly known as Twitter, Bazoum said democracy would prevail in his country.
"The hard-won gains will be safeguarded," he said. "All Nigeriens who love democracy and freedom would want this."
In Paris, the French presidency said Macron will chair a defense meeting Saturday on the situation. France, the former colonial power in Niger, has about 1,500 troops in the country.
The West African regional bloc ECOWAS will hold a summit Sunday in the Nigerian capital, Abuja, on the situation.
The regional bloc has condemned the events in Niger and called on what it described as coup plotters to free the president "immediately and without any condition."
Meanwhile, the U.N. Security Council met Friday behind closed doors to discuss the evolving situation. The U.N. representative for West Africa and the Sahel, Leonardo Santos Simão, briefed the council from Dakkar.
"All council members expressed their concern about the situation," said British Deputy U.N. Ambassador James Kariuki after the meeting. His government holds the council’s rotating presidency this month. "All council members expressed the need to restore the constitutional democracy. All council members condemned the action. So we have a very strong sense that the council is united in seeking to condemn and act."
The council is discussing a draft statement put forward by its three African members — Gabon, Ghana and Mozambique — that strongly condemns the unconstitutional change of government and expresses support for the efforts of ECOWAS, the African Union and the United Nations.
There are 4.3 million people who need humanitarian assistance in Niger. The U.N. said aid flights have been temporarily suspended because of the closure of the country’s airspace, but humanitarian assistance continues to be delivered.
Bazoum’s government is a key Western ally in the fight against Islamist insurgents in Africa’s Sahel. Germany, Italy, France and the United States have troops in Niger on military training and counterinsurgency missions.
Russia has established a foothold in Niger’s neighbors through its Wagner mercenary group. Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin, who recently challenged Russian President Vladimir Putin, welcomed the military’s attempted takeover. In a voice message believed to be Prigozhin on the Telegram app, he hailed the coup attempt and offered the services of his mercenaries to help bring order.
Niger is one of the region’s most unstable countries. Wednesday’s coup marks the fifth military takeover since the country won independence from France in 1960.
VOA’s Carol Van Dam Falk, Margaret Besheer and French to Africa Service contributed to this report. Some information came from Agence France-Presse, The Associated Press and Reuters.